April 29, 2017

Let’s Go See Whales! But Let’s Be Careful

by Marcela Torres

I recently watched a beautiful and moving Argentinean-Spanish film called “El faro de las orcas (The Lighthouse of the Whales), set in the coast of a small Patagonian village. Although it focuses on the story of a boy with autism, it also raises important concerns about encouraging tourists to get close to killer whales. Free killer whales don’t attack humans, experts say. However, others would argue that you can never be too careful.

Because of that, as I have mentioned before, several countries and organizations, including the InternationalWhaling Commission (IWC) and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), have issued guidelines for observing whales and dolphins, to prevent harming both marine mammals and humans. In Chile, the Government passed the regulation for marine wildlife observation, in 2011, and later published two best-practices manuals, one of them with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Argentina has regulated this activity as well.

Australia is certainly one of the leaders in the promotion of responsible tourism, particularly in marine habitats. In 2009, I had an unforgettable whale-watching experience on a ferry that took us from Sydney to the feeding site of a group of humpback whales.

It was a clear, sunny day and I can still feel the cold wind and the ocean water sprinkling all over me as the waves moved the ferry up and down. I was on the deck with other tourists who, like myself, were excited and yelled each time they spotted a tail, a fin or a head, triggering a frenzy to get a photo or video of these animals. The ferry crew kept us in line, however, with their staff on deck as well as with constant instructions and explanations provided through loudspeakers.

Educating and raising awareness is key for ensuring responsible tourism. For example, while we sailed towards the whales, we saw a short educational video about these animals and the rules for observing them. Many guidelines and regulations also demand companies to contribute to conserving and monitoring marine mammals, reporting any sightings to the corresponding authorities.

Besides keeping these guidelines in mind, there are two things you can do to ensure a safe and pleasant experience: Look for information about the species and their habitats before you encounter them; and check that you are traveling with a certified tour operator that is respectful of these animals and the regulations for approaching them.

Whales are amazing creatures! They have been around for more than 30 million years and fascinate people all over the world. But many of them are endangered and we must act responsibly when embarking on a whale-watching adventure.

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